Big Ideas, Big Film, Big Sound
Hollywood scoring sessions are usually pretty casual affairs. People stop by, listen to the orchestra play a cue or two, and go on about their business. Not so for the big-screen version of Fox’s “The X-Files.”
Every musician, mixer and copyist, even the head of the studio music department, had to sign a confidentiality agreement stating that they wouldn’t disclose a hint of what they had seen being projected on the scoring stage screen. Security was so tight that even the composer’s wife couldn’t get in one day.
Mark Snow, architect of the sound of “The X-Files” from its electronically whistled six-note TV theme to the new movie score, remembers the incident with a laugh. “Because of the nature of ‘The X-Files'--trust no one--the paranoia factor on the movie was really quite intense,” he says in the tiny studio behind his Santa Monica home.
For the last five seasons, as Mulder and Scully have uncovered evidence of alien abductions and vast governmental conspiracies on the Fox series, they have been accompanied by the music that Snow composes and performs on the Synclavier in his home studio. Two of Snow’s seven Emmy nominations are for “The X-Files.”
For the $66-million movie version of the show, however, the expanded scope demanded a much bigger sound. So as stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson trek from Washington, D.C., to Texas to Antarctica in search of the truth about potentially malevolent extraterrestrial visitors, they do so to the sounds of an 85-piece orchestra.
“For the big scenes, in six-track surround, the electronics alone wouldn’t quite cut it,” the composer points out. But the decision to supplement the familiar synthesizer sound of “The X-Files” with that of a traditional symphonic ensemble was more complicated than that.
“With the series,” Snow explains, “there are basically two types of shows: the stand-alone shows which deal with the monsters and the paranormal weirdness, and then the government-cover-up, mythology shows.
“On the quirky ones, I can really stretch out and create weird, fun, crazy [music]. But the mythology shows have always been fairly straightforward, traditional 20th century musical language.” And since the movie falls into the government-conspiracy category, he saw it “a good vehicle for a live orchestra.”
Adds director Rob Bowman: “I never saw this movie any other way than with an orchestra, because this needs to be elegant, first-class and timeless. We would have finally heard the limits of the Synclavier in the feature film.
“ ‘The X-Files’ has a traditional approach to filmmaking,” he says. “It’s still about people and not science fiction. It’s the cello and the bassoon and the violin and the French horn and these [other] instruments that we’ve become accustomed to hearing in movies that give us an emotional guideline.”
Fans of the series will be surprised by something else: the interpolation of the original TV theme throughout the movie score. Unlike many series, which beat a theme to death on a weekly basis, the “X-Files” signature is never heard apart from the opening title sequence.
Says Snow: “The orchestra could do things with the theme that with the electronics [alone] would be a little less interesting. Here was an opportunity to harmonize it in different mysterious, spooky ways. And it’s used a lot in terms of ‘Here comes the cavalry,’ a theme of heroism.”
Apart from that, the strange nature of the plot allowed Snow to indulge his passion for atonality a la Schoenberg and Webern. There are also Ligeti-like eerie, distant voices and a handful of calmer, more reflective moments that are unexpectedly warm for “The X-Files.”
All of this came about while Snow was performing two other jobs: scoring weekly installments of both “X-Files” and Fox’s other Chris Carter-created series, “Millennium.” Luckily, the last six “Millennium” shows required less than 10 minutes of music apiece, and while “X-Files” averages 30 minutes of music per episode, Snow was able to handle them all at once.
“I look back on it as a miracle of juggling,” the composer says. “One thing that I do well is I’m really disciplined about my work ethic. I know I have a quota of music to write by a certain date; it has to be done and it’s done. I rarely suffer from serious writer’s block.”
Snow’s other advantage was his long relationship with Bowman, who directed 25 episodes of the series and who often called him during shooting. Bowman says he story-boarded the movie while listening to various soundtracks, which gave the composer “a clue as to where I was headed with [each] scene dramatically.”
Born in Brooklyn, Snow, 51, is a former oboist and Juilliard graduate. Thirty years ago, with onetime roommate Michael Kamen, another successful film composer, he co-founded the New York Rock ‘n’ Roll Ensemble. In the early ‘70s, he moved to Los Angeles.
For the last 20-plus years, he has enjoyed a steady living in TV, writing themes and dozens of episode scores for such shows as “Hart to Hart,” “Crazy Like a Fox” and “T.J. Hooker.” Among his recent TV movies and miniseries have been “The Day Lincoln Was Shot,” “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” and “Children of the Dust.”
“The X-Files,” however, has brought him financial security and a modicum of fame. He has scored every episode of “The X-Files” since its 1993 debut. That’s nearly 60 hours of music, ranging from the largely atmospheric, ambient material of the early seasons to the more frequently melodic scores of recent shows.
His expanded version of the “X-Files” theme (on the million- selling “Songs in the Key of X” album) went to No. 1 in several European countries, winning him three gold records. The second “X-Files” disc, “The Truth and the Light,” consisting of music from the first three seasons, has sold an estimated 400,000 copies so far.
A former “X-Files” associate, director David Nutter, has hired Snow to score MGM’s teen thriller “Disturbing Behavior,” scheduled for an Aug. 7 release. But, Snow says, he plans to stay with Mulder and Scully for the long haul, both on TV and in features. “I feel a loyalty to Chris Carter and ‘The X-Files.’ It’s gotten me where I am now.”